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  • Contending with Stalinism: Soviet Power and Popular Resistance in the 1930s
  • Robert Owen Krikorian
Lynne Viola , ed., Contending with Stalinism: Soviet Power and Popular Resistance in the 1930s. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002. 235 pp.

Despite the passage of a half-century since the death of Josif Stalin, his legacy still commands the attention of scholars, both in the former Soviet Union and abroad. This is not surprising given Stalin's central role in building the Soviet state and the many unresolved issues of his quarter-century in power. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the relative increase in access to Soviet party and state archives, historians have been actively engaged in reassessing the Stalinist era in light of this new documentary material.

As a result, previously dominant paradigms regarding the nature of the Stalinist state and society are being challenged, and a more nuanced and complex picture has emerged of a less than omnipotent state confronting a fragmented, yet far from passive, society. The long-running debate about the essence of the Stalinist system appears no closer to being resolved, in part because of political and scholarly inertia. But [End Page 177] with the availability of so much new source material, as well as the increasingly sophisticated analytical tools that can help make sense of this material, scholars are have been able to reconstruct facets of life in the Soviet Union of the 1930s to a far greater degree than before.

Lynne Viola's edited volume on popular responses to Stalinism is among the latest publications attempting to refocus attention on the complex and multidimensional interplay among societal and state actors. This is an innovative and thought-provoking study of the ways that Soviet citizens adapted to the regime in the 1930s. The concept of resistance, which Viola places in a continuum of societal responses to Stalinism that also included accommodation, adaptation, acquiescence, apathy, internal emigration, opportunism, and positive support, is admittedly an ambiguous category. Viola notes that indeed it might be more useful to think of resistance in plural terms, as a highly complex series of acts of varying dimensions, contours, and content, with multiple meanings and significance (p.2). This very ambiguity, she argues, allows for reconceptualization and reformulation. But such conceptual and definitional ambiguity also runs the risk of subsuming every manifestation of nonconformance under the category of "resistance," regardless of intent—something that the contributors to this volume acknowledge and take into account as they present their findings.

Drawing extensively on archival research, the contributors demonstrate the wide variation of popular responses to actions initiated by the Stalinist state. The examples cited range from a workers' strike in Vichuga to a peasant rebellion in Ryazan, from the impact of Soviet law on traditional social and family structures in Uzbekistan to homosexuality as a form of resistance, and from the development of the black market to center-periphery relations. These disparate instances of what the authors regard as popular resistance cover the spectrum from active opposition to the Soviet state to accommodation and manipulation. But, taken together, they illustrate the necessity of ascribing agency to social actors as well as to the state. The contributors demonstrate that groups within Soviet society were actively engaged in determining their relationship vis-à-vis the organs of state power. Most of the authors at least implicitly recognize the need to avoid simple dichotomies, such as state versus society, and resistance versus accommodation.

Space limitations preclude a thorough analysis of each of the essays in the book— one of the pitfalls of reviewing edited volumes—but certain chapters are particularly noteworthy for their theoretical and empirical contributions to our understanding of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Traditionally, studies of Stalinism, and indeed of the Soviet Union, have been overwhelmingly concentrated on Russia and the Russians, with little or no attention paid to the dozens of non-Russian nationalities of the USSR. Not until widespread political and social unrest took place in the non-Russian regions of the Soviet Union during the late 1980s and early 1990s did serious attention begin to be focused on events and developments along the periphery of the Soviet state. This imbalance...